A tale of friendship, Socialism, and Capitalism. This is me with my childhood friend from the West Germany. She was my first friend from the Capitalist West.
We met in the early post-Soviet years in Moscow where her mom worked at the German embassy. Initially, my parents were apprehensive of our friendship because traditionally there had been severe restrictions on any contacts between the Soviet people and Westerners. The first time I tried kiwi and other exotic fruits was when I got invited to their apartment at the embassy where she and her mom lived. It was there where I played with Western toys for the first time. The first time I tried pizza was when she and her mom took me out to Pizza Hut, which just opened in Moscow back then and was prohibitively expensive to the ordinary Russian people. But when we invited her and her mom over at our apartment, we couldn’t offer them much food other than potatoes and bread, because that was pretty much all that the stores carried back then. My parents were embarrassed that they couldn’t feed our German guests properly, but as children, my friend and I just enjoyed playing together and didn’t think much of the feelings of the adults. I loved it when they came over for dinner because they would bring stuff I had never tasted before, like milk chocolate or exotic nuts or German butter cookies.
Everything that was the normal way of life for my Western friend – the food, the toys – was extraordinary, a huge deal for me.
Like I said, potatoes and bread was pretty much all you could get at the stores when the Soviet Union collapsed and in the early post-Soviet period. But that was just for the ordinary Soviet people. There was a chain of state-run supermarkets called Beryozka that sold goods to foreigners living in the country. There, you could get the kind of stuff you all can get at your neighborhood supermarket, but that stuff was inaccessible to the ordinary Russians back then. It was available only to foreigners in exchange for foreign currency. So my German friend’s mom shopped there, and she told us about the envy and anger she observed on the faces of ordinary people on the street who watched her come out of a Beryozka supermarket with bags full of goods. Envy and anger – because she could shop like a normal person and they couldn’t. Because she was from the free, Capitalist West and they were stuck in the poor, flawed, corrupt Socialist system which couldn’t even provide its citizens with goods readily available at any American store.
My childhood friendship with this German girl and her mom is not only a treasured memory but also a valuable lesson about Capitalism and Socialism.